Road Trip Through History: The Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum

I should begin by pointing out that I do not come from lighthouse country. I knew very little about lighthouses or life saving stations prior to going to the Port Betsie Lighthouse Museum in Frankfort, Michigan. (1) Those of you who are more lighthouse savvy than I am might not learn as much as I did. But based on the reactions of the people I was with, I’ll bet you would learn something.

The Post Betsie lighthouse was built between 1854 and 1858 and went into service in 1859. A life saving station was added to the site in 1876. One of nineteen lighthouses on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, its purpose was to help ship captains to chart their course through the treacherous Manitou Passage. (3) The light is still active as an unmanned navigational aid, powered by a 40 watt bulb. (Honest!)

The museum has three parts: the restored lighthouse, the Boathouse Museum, and the fog signal building. The exhibits explain how the lighthouse and the life saving station worked in day to day terms, how isolated Port Betsie was from local communities for much of its tenure, and how important the work was, with lots of detail to bring it all to life.

Here are the highlights as far as I’m concerned:

  • Climbing into the lighthouse tower. Be warned: The stairs are steep and twisty and require even the short to seriously duck going both up and down. (I regretted not giving in to my impulse to leave my bag with the docent.) Once you’re in the tower, the space is tight. I will admit that I panicked about how I was going to get back down the stairs. (4) And it was absolutely worth it. Going up that staircase and standing in that space gave me a sense of lighthouse keeping I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.
  • An exhibit that illustrated the history of lighthouse illumination, from iron braziers and candle chandeliers to Fresnel lenses, a system of multi-faceted lenses in a brass frame which used a combination of reflection and refraction to focus and project light.

A Fresnel lens from the Point Wilson light station in Port Townsend Washington

  • An explicit description of the important roles played by the wives of lighthouse keepers and life saving station “surfmen”. Historical museums, large and small, often fail to consider the roles women played. I appreciate it when someone makes the effort.
  • Don’t miss the film that plays continuously in the fog signal building. It tells the story of an actual rescue, drawing on the lighthouse keeper’s journal and using local people in a number of the roles. No spoilers here, but it’s a real nail-biter.

In short, the Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum is definitely worth your time if you are in the area.

(1) My strongest images of lighthouses come from a book I read as a child, that was probably a couple of decades old at the time. A storm, a wreck, a desperate attempt to save an unidentified woman who spoke little English and left behind a violin that the lighthouse keeper’s daughter learns to play. Which of course proves to be a Stradivarius (2) when said daughter goes to New York to pursue a musical career. Resulting in the identification of the dead woman. Does this sound a chord for anyone? Let me know.

(2) As mysterious violins in fiction so often do.

(3) The fact that the passage is now a prime site for shipwreck diving tells you all you need to know.

(4) The answer: very slowly and with a large calm man standing below me. Thank you, Carl!


Traveler’s Tips

  1. The Lighthouse Museum is a seasonal treat. As of today, the lighthouse is open May 30 through October 2. Check the website for days and times. It would be a shame to get there and find out it isn’t open.
  2. The keeper’s quarters is available to rent for a night or a week. Expensive, but definitely intriguing.

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